The latest New Yorker has a brilliant review by James Wood of God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson that not only makes me want to read the book but introduces me to a fine word and a fine poem. The word comes about halfway through, as Wood is discussing King James’s desire to “elide doctrinal differences”; he quotes Nicolson as follows: “This is the heart of the new Bible as an irenicon… an organism that absorbed and integrated difference, that included ambiguity and by doing so established peace. It is the central mechanism of the translation, one of immense lexical subtlety, a deliberate carrying of multiple meanings beneath the surface of a single text.” The OED defines “irenicon” (or, in the older spelling, “eirenicon”) as “a proposal designed to promote peace, esp. in a church or between churches; a message of peace”; I like the word, and the way Nicolson defines it in context, very much.

The poem comes earlier in the review, as Wood is tracing the line of influence of the King James Bible in some surprising places, like Philip Larkin, “an English poet of decidedly secular leanings.” I’ve never been a big fan of Larkin’s (apart from everybody’s pitch-black favorite, “This Be The Verse“), but the poem Wood quotes to illustrate Biblical echoes, “Cut Grass,” is a gorgeous little lyric:

Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death

It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,

White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.

Aside from these incidental pleasures, the review provides one of the best concise summaries I’ve seen of exactly why the KJB is so great and will never be replaced:

The Hebrew texts in particular feature what have been called “key-words,” words or phrases repeated and subtly modified in a passage, as a kind of threaded meaning. The English translators were sensitive watchers of these words, and the King James Bible is considered superlative for the pursuit of such threads. The scholars Robert Alter and Gerald Hammond have discussed the technique as it appears in II Samuel 3, in which the phrase “and he went in peace” undergoes a series of variations analogous to those of the original Hebrew:

And David sent Abner away; and he went in peace. And behold, the servants of David and Joab came from pursuing a troop, and brought in a great spoil with them: but Abner was not with David in Hebron; for he had sent him away, and he was gone in peace. When Joab and all the host that was with him were come, they told Joab, saying, Abner the son of Ner came to the king and he hath sent him away, and he is gone in peace. Then Joab came to the king, and said, What hast thou done? Behold, Abner came unto thee; why is it that thou hast sent him away, and he is quite gone?

Hammond notes that later versions of this passage, like the Jerusalem Bible and the New English Bible, smother the effect by varying their translations of the key-phrase too drastically.

Wood discusses the use of repetition further, then sums up: “So there is a one-word answer to the question of what the translators got right. It is music.” Amen.

(You can read the first few paragraphs of the book here.)


  1. I should point out (since it’s an unfamiliar word) that the U.S. pronunciation of “irenicon” is eye-RENN-i-con, whereas the usual U.K. pronunciation is eye-REEN-i-con. Insofar as it’s pronounced at all, that is.

  2. What an excellent word. Now to find an opportunity to use it…

  3. this is indeed a great article. i just started reading the bible for the first time and was quite taken with the importance of repetition. in genesis, the world comes into being through a series of repetitions or generations. this is beautifully reflected in the language as well.

  4. What do we remember, when we need to remember something? A more recent, more technically accurate version? Or an older, more beautiful version with known errors? When does the version matter?
    And how does this square with the earlier discussions here about translation?
    As for Larkin, questions of religion are often central to his verse, even if he wasn’t always so encouraging about it. “High Windows,” “Days,” “Church Going,” “Water,” and, especially, “The Explosion” come to mind.

  5. The review convinces me that I should borrow rather than buy God’s Secretaries, but I should certainly like to read it.
    I don’t see how one can read much of anything in post-Elizabethan English literature and then not enjoy reading the KJV, if only to get one’s allusions in place. As a translation, yes, there are things it gets right and things it gets wrong, but I am sometimes obsessively in love with the sounds of Hebrew and Greek Scripture, and the KJV retains some of the same — well, music, but one might also say “majesty.”

  6. “Irenicon” is an evocative word, but as “Irene” (peace) is a common female first name in Britain, I thought it was also commonplace elsewhere.
    Adam Nicolson is an occasional contributor to the conservative-republican British newspaper “The Telegraph” and has commented about his book tour of the USA in his article “The strange death of liberal America”.
    Go to
    and key his name into the search engine.
    However, I’d like to query the comment in the New Yorker review that WILLIAM TYNEDALE’s translation of the Bible was responsible for 60% of the King James Version, because I have seen other accounts which put it as a much higher percentage; including parts and phrases that are the best known. Is there a definitive article or account of this?

  7. Well, Tyndale’s biographer David Daniell puts the figure at 83%, attributing it to “a student at Brigham Young University who compared the texts using a computer.” I don’t know the details of how it was arrived at, but there’s a figure for you.

  8. By Larkin, Languagehat, you might also like Aubade about death and The Trees about ageing and renewing.

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